Jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations with unilateral declarations of statehood have long been considered a highly controversial and dangerous step that could ignite the conflict even further.
Generally, a unilateral declaration of statehood from the Palestinians has been expected to emerge from West Bank leadership and not Jerusalem. That dynamic might be turned on its ear, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who throughout the 21st century has been one of the most influential leaders regardless of the political party in charge, declared his support for the consideration of unilateral actions–perhaps signalling that Israeli, and not the Palestinians, might establish the border between the Jewish and future Palestinian states.
Unilateral statehood declarations drew significant attention several years ago as Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund executive, began a major infrastructure development project that was expected to put the West Bank on course for sovereignty. By creating a financial framework, building roads, erecting schools, and establishing a healthcare delivery system, this infrastructure development project would allow Palestinians to have autonomy without relying on Israel for back-end support. In essence, putting the Palestinians on the end of the diving board ready to leap into statehood whenever they–and not Israel–see fit.
However, instead of Palestinians holding the bargaining chip, Israel, by unilaterally declaring borders, would be artificially shoving Palestinians into the pool off the ladder–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Regardless of whether Israelis or Palestinians take unilateral actions, several issues must be considered and both countries must be ready to address.
First, is Palestinian infrastructure ready for such a monumental shift? From an effective internal security apparatus to ensuring clean water to a stable economy, poor Palestinian infrastructure would torpedo the Palestinian statehood experiment right out of the gate. No country–whether new or old–can function without a strong infrastructure, and Fayyad’s thinking was certainly on point to remedy that problem. While some strides have been made, the several facets to Palestinian infrastructure are still lacking or, at best, untested.
Second, a unilateral statehood declaration would inherently establish borders and control of those borders. A unilateral Palestinian action might, for example, claim parts of Jerusalem, while unilateral Israeli actions might claim all of Jerusalem and its surrounding neighborhoods and small strips of border between Jordan and the new Palestinian state. That’s not to mention control of airspace, as rogue planes from the West Bank could be easily used as missiles into Israeli towns. Any unilateral declaration would most certainly upset elements in both camps, and they must be prepared to address any disputes that arise–namely that people living in certain areas will suddenly be under new rule or be opposed to their existing rule, likely sparking another intifada. If Israel acts, how much force is acceptable to ensure security, and if the Palestinians act, how much force–if any–can they tolerate or encourage from their citizens who might not be viewed as Palestinian by Israelis.
Lastly, and most importantly, any eventual declaration of Palestinian statehood must involve Palestinian ownership of their actions and responsibility, including for subsequent consequences. The Palestinians have a right to sovereignty–borders and infrastructure are mere details. Once statehood is obtained, including through unilateral actions by either party, the Palestinians must then demonstrate that peace is possible and sovereignty will not be abused to facilitate terrorism. Those criteria are not just for the Palestinians, but rather adhered to by every other country. Those countries that support or refuse to condone terrorism risk consequences–whether that be through sanctions or military strikes. A Palestinian state should be no different.
While these factors are by no means all inclusive, they are important drivers and hurdles to any unilateral actions, which might be the panacea to a long-dead Middle East peace process that has unsuccessfully undergone nearly every other available treatment to date.